Playwright Kaite O’Reilly’s latest groundbreaking production sets out to challenge the way disabled people are perceived in Singapore. Using disabled actors, she was determined to tell the stories of those who are not normally heard in a country where previous generations were locked up and left to die, as she tells Joe Turnbull
Five years ago, disabled playwright Kaite O’Reilly pushed the humble monologue into new creative territory with In Water I’m Weightless, an Unlimited commission for the Cultural Olympiad as part of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The show featured an all deaf and disabled cast. It had no discernible plot and experimented with dramaturgical form, incorporating access elements such as audio description and sign language into the creative material.
Now, O’Reilly’s latest project And Suddenly I Disappear…The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues, sees her return to this approach of creating a play out of a series of fictionalised monologues – sometimes delivered chorally – which are inspired by stories about the lived experiences of deaf and disabled people. It’s arguably even more ambitious than its predecessor.
Its development spans nine years, five languages and two continents (three if you include the trip to America that inspired it all). Not only that, it seeks to challenge the way disability theatre is both produced and received in Singapore and smash deep-seated preconceptions about disabled and deaf experience along the way.
“I received a Creative Wales Award in 2008-9, which allowed me an extended period of exploration and development,” recalls O’Reilly. “I spent time in New York very briefly with Eve Ensler of the Vagina Monologues and Ping Chong and his Undesirable Elements series. I hung out with a load of disabled people that he’d interviewed who he then got to perform. I began thinking about that as a vehicle for challenging preconceptions and hopefully subverting some of the old narratives that are problematic – that are connected to what I would call the ‘atypical body’ – whether that’s neuro or physically or sensory. I interviewed over 70 deaf and disabled people from the UK and the material it inspired me to write became The ‘d’ Monologues, which provided the text for In Water I’m Weightless.”
O’Reilly’s affinity with Singapore predates even that, having had a relationship with its Intercultural Theatre Institute since 2004, and teaching there for the last six years. It was in 2004 that she met two of the main collaborators for And Suddenly I Disappear. The first is Peter Sau, a graduate of the institute and winner of best actor in the 2015 Singapore Life! Theatre Awards. Sau is associate-directing the project and managing much of the work being carried out in Singapore. The other is Ramesh Meyyappan, a deaf Singaporean visual and physical theatremaker now based in Glasgow, who will be overseeing the physical language elements of the project.
5 things you need to know about international disability theatre
1. And Suddenly I Disappear… The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues is the first Unlimited International R&D commission in theatre. Unlimited (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) is the UK’s largest commissioner of work by disabled artists. Unlimited hopes to commission further international collaborations.
2. Crossing the Line is a collaborative skills exchange and professional development initiative between three of Europe’s leading learning-disabled theatre companies: Mind the Gap (UK), Moomsteatern (Sweden) and Compagnie de l’Oiseau-Mouche (France). The initial explorations culminated in a festival in Roubaix, France, this year. The consortium will be expanding to include learning-disabled companies from a further four countries.
3. International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) ) is a network of independent producers and artists working across Europe. For its latest plenary meeting in Brussels this month it is working with the British Council to bring disabled practitioners from the UK to join in the debate and diversify its membership.
4. A new production In Touch premiered at the UK’s National Theatre last month. In Touch is part of a long-term project with Inclusion Theatre and Theatre of Nations, using the arts to connect deafblind, sighted and hearing people in different spaces. The original production, Touch-Ables, based on the real stories of the actors and their interactions with the world, had its premiere in Russia in 2015. This production is an international version performed by actors from Russia and the UK. It was made in collaboration with Russia’s Inclusion Theatre, the UK’s Graeae Theatre Company and the National Theatre.
5. Hijinx’s Unity Festival is an annual festival held in Wales. It showcases some of the best inclusive and disability-led theatre from around the world. Next summer it will be celebrating its 10th anniversary.
O’Reilly explains how she first met Meyyappan all those years ago: “He had just finished a performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death. People were telling him this weird ‘ang mo’ [Singaporean for white foreigner] is waiting outside and says she won’t leave until she speaks with you. We just about managed to have a conversation, partly through Singaporean Sign Language and me with British Sign Language and sign-supported English. It all got very funny.”
O’Reilly reconnected with Sau in 2015 when he came to UK to do an MA. “We started to hatch the idea of what I would call an international dialogue of difference, diversity and disability and deaf experience from opposite sides of the world,” she says. The piece received an Unlimited International R&D in March 2017 and has been in proper development since.
“Although we hadn’t worked together before, I thought I had to have Ramesh on board as well. I explained to him that he would be the bridge. He knows Singaporean sign language and he understands both Singapore and the UK. Also if we’re going to do this work – and I’ve always done this – I want it to be disability-led and deaf-led. So Ramesh is leading the deaf cultural parts of the project.” Everyone else involved in the project also identifies as disabled or deaf, both culturally and politically. Sau and his team have been collecting testimonies of disabled and deaf people in Singapore, with O’Reilly doing the same in the UK, which have inspired the latter to produce a series of fictionalised monologues – some abstract, some character-driven. The monologues are delivered across multiple languages – English, Mandarin, Welsh, British Sign Language and Singapore Sign Language. O’Reilly is keen to stress it’s not verbatim.
“I’ve always said people’s stories belong to them. As long as something says ‘by Kaite O’Reilly’ it has got to be by Kaite O’Reilly, otherwise it’s theft. I think it’s to do with my Irish cultural heritage – your stories are who you are. Ping Chong got around verbatim by getting the interviewees for Undesirable Elements to perform it themselves. I’m not saying verbatim is necessarily bad practice, there are ways of doing it well. It’s just my personal position.”
But some of the testimonies coming out of Singapore have been deeply concerning to O’Reilly, a lifelong disability rights advocate, whose activism includes lying down in front of buses on Direct Action Network demos.
“The central thing I’ve got so far listening to the interviews from Singapore is how people are completely invisible, hence the title. I’m hearing the most terrifying stories of disabled people being kept in the back rooms, never actually going out. A lot of them in previous generations were left to die at birth. So what we’re doing here is really radical. I’m encouraging them to record the interviews as well so there’s an oral archive. These are voices, experiences, perspectives that have never been paid attention to previously.”
O’Reilly remains hugely optimistic about what the project can achieve, just by asking these questions and opening up a cultural dialogue. “There’s an opportunity to be there at the beginning of a change. And hopefully we’ll be able to encourage debate and discussion, and also sharing models and experience from those of us who have a different model of disability and a different history of struggle for civil rights. It’s not about saying ‘we’ve got the answers’ – we know things aren’t perfect in the UK and they’re getting worse again. What I’m doing is trying to explore and celebrate the diversity and the difference and the places where we do connect.”
As well as putting disability perspectives on the agenda in Singapore, the project is also making some very practical changes. “I’m even having to have the basic level of conversation about what an accessible building is. People are telling us stuff is accessible. And then if I ask if there are any stairs, they’re like ‘yes, but there’s only three steps, it’s okay’. Well, that’s not accessible! Centre 42, who hosted the first sharings in September and October, put in ramps in for the rehearsal space. So we’re already having an impact, just by asking these questions and having this conversation. People have been so supportive and willing and excited about this. We’re not being met with resistance. It’s open arms. Let’s explore.
“They’re saying we are interested in diversity and an inclusive society, and I believe it, I think it’s genuine. The venues, the funding bodies, the universities and the British Council are all very on board with this.”
O’Reilly almost had to refuse to go ahead with the sharing when she came to realise the performance space would be inaccessible to wheelchair users. Centre 42 is a protected heritage building, meaning fully adapting it for access wasn’t feasible. As a compromise, Centre 42 put on an extra performance in the rehearsal space, which was accessible. They had seven wheelchair users in the audience, which was previously unheard of.
What’s more, Sau has been voluntarily training a group of emerging disabled actors, four of whom went on to perform in the first sharings. Those actors have had the chance to work alongside experienced heads such as director Phillip Zarrilli. When I speak to O’Reilly she is in Singapore teaching dramaturgy and mentoring for Sau’s Project Tandem initiative which seeks to professionalise disability and deaf arts in Singapore.
“What we’re hoping is if it goes through to full production in May 2018 we will be bringing in professionally a few of those emerging Singaporean actors – who will have been given this proper training and professional development opportunity, not just being trained by established theatremakers but by people who themselves identify as deaf or disabled. There might also be an opportunity to bring those Singaporean actors over to the UK for Unlimited Festival 2018 at Southbank or Tramway.”
The outlook is bright, and major venues in the UK and Singapore are eager to programme the show.
But for O’Reilly, a glossy showstopper to rival In Water I’m Weightless is of secondary concern. “I’m far more interested in something that’s pared down. Eventually, I’d like to create a collection of monologues from And Suddenly I Disappear and In Water I’m Weightless which can be made all-singing, all-signing all-dancing. But also, there’s stuff that is portable, and all you need is the script in hand and a barstool. I’m building a body of work, so that I’ve got more monologues than I could ever present at one time. So we can select the monologues according to who the cast is. Like a Vagina Monologues for deaf and disabled experience.”
CV: Kaite O’Reilly
Born: Oldbury, UK
Landmark productions: Yard, Bush Theatre, London (1998), Slachthaus, The Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin, (1999), Belonging, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, (2000), Peeling, Graeae Theatre Company, London, (2002), Perfect, Contact Theatre, Manchester, (2004), The Almond and the Seahorse, Sherman Cymru Theatre Company, (2008), Persians, National Theatre Wales, (2010), In Water I’m Weightless, National Theatre Wales, (2012), The 9 Fridas, Sherman Cymru Theatre Company, (2014), Cosy, Wales Millennium Centre, (2016)
Awards: Peggy Ramsay Award, Most Innovative Play of the Year for Yard(1998), Theatre Wales Awards, Best New Writing for Peeling (2003), Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards, Best New Play for Perfect (2004), Ted Hughes Award, New Works in Poetry for Persians (a reworking of Aeschylus’s classic) Awarded by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and The Poetry Society (2011)
Agent: Conrad Williams of Blake Friedmann